This week, I helped lead the class talk about discipline in an academic context. We looked at case studies including Groton School, the New York City Public School System, and Phillips Academy itself, to examine the relationship between a school’s expectations and the actions of its student community.
Ultimately, we focused our time on evaluating the disciplinary system at Andover, which we have all been exposed to in one form or another. One of the most important questions we raised was: What does the school want us to be, and how well do the rules make those values a reality?
According to my experience as a four-year student at Phillips Academy, not to mention the rules written in the 2013-2014 Blue Book, Phillips Academy holds its students to (justifiably) high standards when it comes to discrimination, sexual assault, drug abuse, and other activities which result in disciplinary action. In fact, it expects us to develop a thorough understanding of these issues on our own, and bases its disciplinary system on the belief that if a wrongdoing occurs, a student will be able to recognize it as such and then report it to the administration.
To the Blue Book’s credit, the introductory statements on many of their policies are prefaced with an explanation of some of the harmful consequences of banned activities, which form the basic reasoning behind their criminalization. For example, the first clause on Tobacco, Alcohol, and Other Drugs on page 6 explains that the use of those substances can cause serious damage to the health of individuals and the community as a whole, which is why they are banned.
I strongly believe that every student, child, and person has a right to know precisely why an authority figure is requiring them to act in a certain way. That’s not to say that they have to agree, but requiring rules to be explained both helps students learn about the potential consequences of their actions and ensures that certain rules are justifiable to begin with.
This is supported by the work of Diana Baumrind, a well-known developmental psychologist who found that children whose parents actually explained their commands ended up more socially responsible and independent than all other children. It turns out there’s a benefit to treating youth as intelligent beings capable of rational thought.
However, if the administration truly does “strive to educate students about the potential dangers” (page 6) of drugs, and if it honestly “makes every effort to achieve an educational environment that is free from harassment, discrimination, hazing, and bullying” (page 14), I’m far from the only student who doesn’t remember that happening. In fact, I have found that many of the problems associated with substance abuse, discrimination, and harassment are unclear or ignored by an alarmingly large number of students here.
Just this week, my dormitory had to hold an emergency dorm meeting when my house counselors overheard some students using racial slurs. In small groups, the dorm spent an hour simply reviewing the definition of “microaggression,” something many students had never actually understood. The week before, we all met in the common room to receive a lecture about sexting with a Q&A session. These are just the latest of a long series of dorm meetings over the past four years which made understanding the consequences of harmful actions a chore to be done after hours, as quickly as possible, so that we can go back to our homework.
When the administration says they “strive” to educate the student body about these topics, they mean that they confine virtually all official teachings or discussions of discipline issues to one or two brief meetings, at the beginning of the year, in the context of a dorm late at night, taught by house counselors who themselves are not trained to know more than the list of rules they are given before such meetings.
As someone who believes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, I think it would be in the best interests of the administration, the student body, and the entire community to reconsider a curriculum which values a student’s ability to solve, plot, and integrate a function as needing more time and emphasis than a student’s ability to be a good person.
To be fair, those students who happen to come in as Freshmen or New Lowers are required to take a pass-fail, one-term class (often during lunch) to talk about social issues. PACE (Personal and Community Education) isn’t inherently bad, but it once again limits official discussions of extremely important topics such as race, class, gender, and sexuality to brief sessions for underclassmen in an after-thought setting.
If the administration is practicing what they preach, apparently they don’t think upperclassmen or day students even need any education on these topics. I think it’s possible that the administration earnestly believes that the brilliant, talented, hard-working students of Andover come in with a mastery of discipline, a deep knowledge of social issues, and an underlying commitment to being kind people; it’s certainly true that some Andover students do step onto campus with those tools under their belt.
Sadly, that’s simply not the case for everyone. As much as admissions tries to admit nice people (the Class of 2014 was dubbed the “nice” class based on that effort), the ability to be a good person is not as clearly marked on an application as the ability to solve, plot, and integrate a function. Besides, virtually none of us have been in a place with such a diverse group of people, causing us to be aware of identities, values, and actions we never had to think about in the past. The flip side of diversity is that we also have such different educations and backgrounds that it’s simply not fair to assume that we share common knowledge about any of these complicated issues.
For example, students from states in the South have said that they never had any sex-ed to begin with. Some of my friends from European countries are shocked that the administration considers alcohol to be a significant danger to minors.
Because our disciplinary system consists of committees and discussions which, except in the most extreme cases, rely almost entirely on anecdote provided by students or other members of the community, it is imperative that everyone in the community has a strong common understanding of what exactly the Blue Book is talking about.
In a school full of people whose common trait is a tendency towards academic success, many students are going to prioritize the materials they are required to learn, practice, and be tested about on a regular basis and in a academic manner over the materials which are treated like a chore. I don’t think my dorm would have such a struggle to understand microaggression if they had to define it and use examples.
The idea that “Knowledge” and “Goodness” should complement each other is written in our very school constitution. “Goodness without Knowledge” is described as feeble. Personally, I don’t think it’s even possible to have the former without the latter: how can you be good if you don’t know what “good” is?